Adam Kownacki won’t look back. He sat in the stands at Madison Square Garden on June 1, as shocked as everyone else, as Andy Ruiz Jr. scored one of the most stunning upsets in recent heavyweight history when he stopped Anthony Joshua to win three of the four major sanctioning body belts.
Beyond the belts, Ruiz’s seventh-round knockout victory made him the man in the heavyweight division.
It could have been, and nearly was, Kownacki. When Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller was pulled from the fight because of several anti-doping violations, promoter Eddie Hearn was desperate to find an opponent to save the show for Joshua’s U.S. debut.
Kownacki, who had knocked Gerald Washington in two rounds on Jan. 26 in Brooklyn, was a logical choice. He was 19-0 with 15 knockouts and was well-known to the New York crowd, as he lived much of his life in Brooklyn and had fought 13 of his 19 bouts in New York metropolitan area.
But Kownacki’s wife, Justyna, was pregnant and Kownacki was a happy man. He was out partying and enjoying life when the call went to his manager, Keith Connolly.
Connolly has been so good at his job in recent years that the Boxing Writers Association of America would be wise to rename its Manager of the Year Award after him and give someone else a chance to win it. He, though, never got a chance to negotiate a purse with Hearn.
“There just wasn’t time,” Connolly said. “It was 35 days out, and it would have taken a week or so to negotiate a deal, and he was 20 pounds overweight.”
Connolly, of course, let Kownacki know of the offer and gave him his opinion. Kownacki knew that the right move was to turn down the fight.
Even if Kownacki had taken the fight, the odds would have been astronomical in Joshua’s favor. But Kownacki, who told Yahoo Sports he believes he’s the best heavyweight in the world, felt otherwise.
And he felt he’d be cheating himself by taking the fight with so little time to prepare. Ruiz had stopped Alexander Dimitrenko on April 20 and was in shape when he got the call to fight Joshua. Kownacki was not, and hasn’t regretted his decision to say no to the offer, even though he was in the crowd at MSG that night and undoubtedly pondering what might have been.
“My only regret is that I took too much time off after the [Washington] fight and I couldn’t take the fight because I wasn’t in ‘A’ shape,” Kownacki said. “I didn’t think it was right to risk my whole career and take a fight of that magnitude on just five or six weeks’ notice. [Ruiz] and I were in different situations at that point.”
Kownacki returns to the ring Saturday, (8 p.m. ET, Fox) in his hometown when he headlines against former title challenger Chris Arreola at the Barclays Center. He said all the right things about fighting Arreola and said he believed he’ll see the best Arreola there has been in the last several years.
Arreola hired Joe Goossen as his new trainer and if Goossen is known for anything other than having the best hair in the business, it’s for demanding his fighters be in shape.
Kownacki, who was born in Poland and became interested in boxing by watching Andrew Golota when he was a boy, said he’ll make one change after this fight against Arreola.
“I learned a valuable lesson, and I’m going to stay in shape between fights,” he said. “Obviously, my preference for a fight like that would be to get a full 12-week training camp so I would be as good as I can be, but if the same situation comes up, I’ll be able to take the fight.”
The heavyweight division is better than it has been in years, and Kownacki is part of that. He doesn’t have the pedigree that fighters like 2016 Olympic gold medalist Tony Yoka has, but he’s slowly been making a name for himself with his brawling, fan-friendly style. He’s ranked fourth by the IBF, sixth by the WBC and 12th by the WBA and will find himself in the running for a title shot by next year if he continues to win.
Arreola is 38-5-1 with 33 knockouts and was once one of the division’s most prominent names. He’s come up short in his biggest fights — he was stopped after 10 one-sided rounds by Vitali Klitschko in 2009 and after eight by WBC champion Deontay Wilder in 2016 — but he’s always had skill and heavy hands.
The question with Arreola was whether he’d get into shape and take fighting seriously enough. He’s won his last two since losing to Wilder, and that’s enough to convince Kownacki to take him seriously.
“I expect a war,” Kownacki said. “He’s a guy who has a lot of talent and he loves to get out there and brawl. He’s 38 now, but Manny Pacquiao just beat Keith Thurman at 40 and I think he showed that if you work hard and come to fight, age doesn’t matter.
“I feel like I’m the best heavyweight in the world, and this is a good guy for me to fight. He still has one of the biggest names around and I think the casual fans all have heard of him. I’m excited because I think it’s going to be the kind of fight that fans love and it will help me grow my brand and get me that much closer to where I really want to be.”
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